Scrum & Rugby
13 March 2023
The not-so-secret connections between Scrum and Rugby
I played Rugby during university and when I started working in Scrum I was continuously finding similarities between the two worlds. I had never really delved into it, it was just some background noise in my mind.
Then I read the book: “Legacy. What The All Blacks Can Teach Us: 15 Lessons in Leadership” by Kerr James. It connected all the dots I had in my mind. The background noise became something so obvious that I was surprised I couldn’t express it before.
Why is there this strong relationship between Scrum and Rugby?
Rugby and in particular All Blacks are based on a strong culture. The kind of culture “that creates a team of individuals prepared to stand up when it counts, leaders in the field”.
But it doesn’t end here. We are talking about “leaders that are humble enough to do the little things that must be done”.
Doesn’t it make you think about your colleague that offered help doing anything that was necessary to finish the Sprint? Or developers that help testers or testers that help functional analysts to reach the Sprint goal?
Leaders that are humble enough to do the little things that must be done
James reports what an England rugby coach said: “If you establish a culture higher than that of your opposition, you would win. So rather than obsessing about the results, you focus on the team.” “Because the question is usually not how well each person performs, but how well they work together. Focus on getting the culture right; the results will follow.”
How does this connect with Scrum?
In Rugby, as in Scrum, if you don’t have a functional team you can’t play. You need people capable of working together first, then you can add Scrum.
In a Rugby team, a good player can do some nice moves but it won’t change the match results without the team’s support. Only when the team moves as a single entity among the field you will see a real difference in the score. Only when they have fun together you can see the magic happening.
I think this applies to Scrum teams as well. An amazing developer won’t release the functionality to the customer alone, one needs the team to mark the job as really done.
I remember various occasions where the smartest person in the room was the one creating problems and conflicts. Magic can be created only when people use their skills and knowledge to make others grow, inspire each other to do better and be wise enough to adapt to each other’s pace. They are able to realise their full potential only when the rest of the team is able to match the same pace.
All team must keep the same pace
In the rugby field when you play defense all team members need to stay on a line, to advance or to go backwards on the same line. Otherwise, the opposition will be able to breach your defense. The fastest player has to run as the slowest because that’s the team’s pace.
During training, faster players can challenge the slowest ones, but during the match, everyone adapts to the same pace. That’s the rule to play as a team.
To reach this level of unity a lot of training is needed. A lot of training with the same people. You can’t find the same affinity with someone you don’t know at all. That’s normal and that’s ok. That’s why we need to start from zero when someone changes in our working team. We can’t take anything for granted.
When a rugby player is running toward the goal line with the ball in their hands, they can’t look backwards. They can’t know where their teammate will be to support them. Their teammates will shout to let them know to which side they can pass the ball. The runner just knows someone will be there to receive the ball in case they will get tackled but still strong communication is needed to make it work. It’s the same communication that many times lacks in a working team and when it lacks you can be sure problems will arise soon or later.
When we are talking about a cross-functional team we know that in a Rugby team there is a place for anyone. It’s probably the sport with the most variety of physics between its players. Ideally, anyone should be ready to replace anyone else in the team if for any reason that would be necessary. We know that’s not possible most of the time, exactly as in a Scrum team cross-functional doesn’t mean that everybody should be able to do everything. But it means we have all the skills we need to complete the work. And I also think it means as mentioned before that everyone is humble enough to do the little things that need to be done, independently by which is our specialty.
They have all the skills we need to complete the work
Scrum values and how they emerge in Rugby as well
So when we talk about commitment what we want to see is a team moving forward on the field passing the ball from left to right and from right to left with clear communication and a clear goal in mind. Reaching the goal line, meter after meter.
Exactly as we want to see a Scrum team moving each item along a Kanban board from left to right, talking clearly to each other with a clear goal in mind: completing the Sprint.
And exactly as a Scrum team needs to complete a user story, in order to consider it done in the sprint and to count its story points, a rugby team needs to reach the goal line. If you get tackled one meter before it doesn’t count.
Scrum team members respect each other to be capable people. And everyone respects others’ opinions. I think we should ask for more than that. I think that receiving others’ respect is a gift and we should be able to preserve it in time. We have to show we are worthy of it. As James explains in his book, All Black’s culture teaches us the idea to leave a legacy. Being an All Black means that you need to deserve the jersey you are wearing, you have to live up to the standard set before you and leave the jersey better than how you found it. Leave a legacy to the ones coming after you. And you do this by being the better version of yourself, by being the best that you can possibly be. You need to improve yourself by continuous small steps. A small and constant improvement.
Doesn’t it remind you of anything?
By doing your best you can gain your team’s respect. You need to respect the jersey as a sign of respect to the whole team and all the people that wore that jersey before you. You have to live up to it professionally and personally.
A scrum team needs to be focused and needs to have the capacity to focus on its goal because that’s the most important thing for the team and it should be the most important one for all team members. Everyone needs to be focused.
In the same way, a rugby team needs to be focused on the game on the field. I remember one of my rugby trainers shouting at us “You all look like a herd of grazing sheep!”.
I learned you can’t go around on a rugby field thinking about something else. In that specific case you don’t need to be focused only to win, you need to be focused to survive.
A scrum team needs to be brave enough to aspire to the best solutions and high-quality standards. Furthermore, they need to be courageous to challenge every piece of information they receive, to understand if that is really the solution or if there are other better options.
They need to challenge the system in a constructive way.
There is probably no need to say that when you play rugby you need to be brave. When the match is starting and you see in front of you many people much bigger than you and you know you have to pass through them.
You know you can’t be afraid, because if you doubt for even a second about what you are doing you’ll get hurt. So you take a nice breath, look at your teammates and start running. The best part is that this is only the beginning.
You need to be even braver after you have received so many tackles that everything in your body hurts but you don’t want to surrender. You can’t because your teammates are there playing and they are counting on you. So you just get up and start running again.
This is the kind of courage we should look for in a team. When you feel you are afraid of something, that’s the time you should show your courage, and you should know that the team has your back.
Scrum team members have the courage to do the right thing and to work on tough problems.
It’s really important to be open about good things and bad things that happen.
Scrum team and their stakeholders are supposed to agree to be open about the challenges that they face. They are supposed to be open enough to consider anyone’s idea and every option.
I think that openness requires us to speak up when we have made a mistake and to speak up when we think one of our team members is not doing his best.
If we have agreed to commit, to respect, to be focused and to be courageous enough we should be open enough to say when this is not happening.
This means to look at your teammates in the eyes and say I didn’t do my best or I made a mistake, I am sorry.
This also means looking at your teammate and saying I think you didn’t do your best, what happened? I am here to help you.
When an entire Scrum Team cared about reaching the goal but one person didn’t, we have to speak up.
When an entire Rugby Team cared about dying in the field to protect the goal line but one person didn’t, we have to speak up.
We expect that everyone cares. And being open means we say it. It’s not about avoiding mistakes, it’s about doing them and talking about them.
I know that all this talking can seem naïve and part of an ideal wonderful world that doesn’t exist in reality. Even if this can be true for most of the working realities, I have seen at least some of this magic happen.
I want to leave you with a comment shared by a team member during the last retrospective before Christmas some years ago: “I know the project it’s really complicated and it’ll be even more complicated in the next months. We surely have a lot of problems to face but I know we can always solve them. I’m happy to come to work every day because I have fun with my team”.
The team wasn’t working in an ideal context, they had a lot of the regular issues we always face. Still, they were constantly delivering the expected functionalities. That sentence was probably the best Christmas present ever.